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Afghans teach American Air advisor life lessons - The Crow & the Quail

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Yandura
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Inspector General
According to an old Afghan tale, there was once a crow who, in the normal course of business gathering straw to build his nest, took notice of another bird. This bird was clearly not a crow...he possessed a very unique appearance. His feathers were colorful, he had a very ornate tuft of plumage on his forehead and he seemed more refined than any crow. But even beyond the obvious physical characteristics, he displayed something quite intriguing -- an enviable, stately strut. He walked with purpose, with swagger. The crow even sensed a healthy pride in that walk - the walk of a quail.

Some of the quail noticed the crow's interest and offered to teach him how to walk like a quail. The crow longed to walk like that, to cast off his seemingly plain, boring method of walking. So he took up the offer. After many trips and falls, sore and bruised claws, the crow eventually learned how to walk like the quail. He never really was able to pull off the walk without straining himself, without feeling some pain. He found that although he looked great (or so he thought) during the display of the quail walk technique, he really didn't enjoy it. In fact he began to despise it. But he kept after it, often wanting to give up but not wanting to disappoint the august quail. After a while, the crow decided he wanted to go back to his old walk, one that he was comfortable with and good at...only to discover that he had forgotten how to walk like a crow.

I heard this story over a cup of chai. The storyteller was a man I have grown to respect and admire -- an officer with more than three decades of experience in the Afghan military. I have worked with him for the last 12 months, listening to his concerns and offering advice and assistance. He asked me if I thought the Afghan military would really be able to become like the NATO forces; then he told me the story of the crow and the quail. In advisor training and discussions with fellow advisors throughout the year, we often state that we need to "listen to the mountains", that we need to help the Afghans find their own way and establish what works for them. But I have found myself, and observed others, trying to force the crow to walk like the quail. I believe we do so with good intentions, with the goal of eventually stepping back and allowing the Afghan military to conduct their own independent operations. Often we think we are leading the Afghans to improve, but if we try to force-fit our methods we are likely to fail. I am reminded of an Afghan proverb that states, "If you think you're leading and no one is following you, then you're only taking a walk."

I have begun to learn that the art of advising requires persistence and the ability to pick your battles wisely. Persistence, as we think of it, is necessary because we are very time-conscious and Afghans tend not to be. We see a meeting as all business -- 55 minutes of getting through a list of items to accomplish. The Afghans prefer to spend time building relationships, and only then do they feel comfortable "getting down to brass tacks" and knocking out some business. Learn to slow down...take time to get to know your counterpart, grab a map and ask questions about their home province. The stories they tell (and they are fabulous storytellers with keen ability to recall details) are interesting and usually quite revealing. Take the time to listen and understand.

Another key to successful advising is to carefully consider which battles to fight, and in what order. I have been encouraged by some recent "tough love" steps taken by advisor leadership, steps that reinforce the notion that a professional military must uphold standards and integrity. There are certain areas that we need to teach without compromise, such as proper accountability for equipment. Another area is professional conduct of flight missions, from scheduling to planning to execution.

Overall, I believe the make-or-break factor will be leadership -- if those selected to be Afghan commanders are honest and consistently fair, there is hope for a better future for Afghanistan. Those who are not should be replaced or disciplined as appropriate. We must expect the Afghans to uphold basic standards and "learn the walk", although the final choreography may not look exactly as it does for NATO forces.

Spending a year in the advisor role has been a challenge for me, but I have learned as much about myself and my ability to stretch beyond my limits as I have about Afghan ways and culture. I have emphasized to my Afghan counterpart the importance of disciplined, consistent methods of operating, but I have also tried to avoid completely redefining how he does business. He has taught me how to be a better listener, and demonstrated just how important relationships are in any walk of life.